Former School Official Gets 'Nuisance Settlement' in Lawsuit Over Student Sexting

November 15, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

A recent item in the Palm Beach post caught my eye as a West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, because it grew out of “sexting” at local schools. According to the Nov. 3 article, the Palm Beach County school board has settled a lawsuit from a former administrator for $1,500. The former administrator, Thomas Hawkins, accused the school board of retaliating against him for reporting student “sexting” at a middle school to law enforcement authorities. The school district had previously declined to report the sexting. The settlement was 10 percent of what Hawkins had originally requested in his lawsuit, suggesting that his case was not strong enough to net him the full amount requested in a trial. In fact, the article said the attorney for Hawkins couldn’t find the evidence to make a strong case, but it was unclear whose opinion that was.

Hawkins was an administrator at Gold Coast Community School in April of 2009 when he reported the alleged sexting. He wrote to the district that students at Lake Shore Middle School were taking pictures of themselves naked in school bathrooms, with captions offering sex for money. It was not reported how he knew this, but the article does note that he had worked at Lake Shore previously. In his lawsuit, he alleged that Lake Shore’s principal never reported the sexting to authorities, as required by Florida law. Hawkins responded by reporting the sexting himself. He claimed that after the reporting, the district retaliated against him by not renewing his contract and making him ineligible for more administrative work with the district, He has taken a lower-paying job as a teacher at Spady Elementary in Delray Beach, which is also part of the Palm Beach County school district.

Lawsuit settlements are not directly part of my work as an Orlando cyber crime criminal defense attorney. But I’m interested in this case because it’s strongly connected to criminal laws -- laws against child pornography, which are used in sexting cases, and penalties for school administrators who fail to report child abuse or juvenile sex offenses. We can’t say for sure, but let’s assume the article is correct that Hawkins didn’t have a strong case. It’s possible that the school administrators disagreed that there was anything to report to begin with. Sexting is not child abuse as it’s generally understood -- unless you think kids can abuse themselves -- and legislatures across the U.S. are debating whether sexting should be considered a juvenile sex crime. It’s also possible that there was no sexting, or no proof of it. Any of these would explain why administrators took no action -- and why DCF and the state’s attorney’s office apparently did not find anything newsworthy, if they investigated.

Different parents handle this sensitive issue in different ways. But if there was sexting, and the school district declined to treat it like a crime, I applaud. As I’ve written here many times in the past, I do not believe that sexting by teenagers should be penalized and prosecuted as if it were exploitive child pornography. A nude self-portrait by a 13-year-old may technically be child pornography, but it’s very far from the kind of child pornography produced by adults using force, fear or deception on children. By reporting the sexting to authorities, the district would have been inviting them to get involved, with potentially life-altering results for the students involved. If they were criminally charged with making child pornography, the young teens could have faced serious time in juvenile facilities or prison and lifelong sex offender registration.

These penalties are ludicrously disproportionate to the harm these kids could have caused (mainly to themselves) by sexting. In fact, Palm Beach Country legislators have already recognized this and proposed a bill that would treat sexting teens differently from adults, though still with criminal penalties. That’s why, as a Fort Lauderdale cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, I’m glad that there was ultimately no report about a criminal investigation of these kids. I hope that, if the district did indeed choose not to report sexting to the authorities, it did so with the intention of protecting these kids and their futures. Sexting is not appropriate behavior for school, but with the stakes so high, it’s much better for schools and parents to handle it without bringing in criminal authorities.

If you or your teenager are facing criminal charges related to sexting or any other technology crime, Seltzer Law, P.A. can help. Lead attorney David Seltzer is an experienced former cyber crime prosecutor who understands technology and the way prosecutors use and understand it. To learn more or set up a free consultation, contact us through our website or call 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333), 24 hours a day and seven days a week.